Obama Pivots Back to the Pocketbook
By Jonathan Weisman
CHARLESTON, W.V. -- Democratic White House hopeful Barack Obama, visiting the potentially critical state of West Virginia today, pivoted his campaign from the difficult issues of race and war back to pocketbook issues, making an economic case for ending the conflict in Iraq.
His address, at the University of Charleston in the state's capital, took far more shots at Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, than his rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as he continued a two-front war with an eye on the general election.
"We know what this war has cost us -- in blood and in treasure," Obama said. "But in the words of Robert Kennedy, 'past error is no excuse for its own perpetuation.' ... John McCain is refusing to learn from the failures of the past. Instead of offering an exit strategy for Iraq, he's offering us a 100-year occupation. Instead of offering an economic plan that works for working Americans, he's supporting tax cuts for the wealthiest among us who don't need them and aren't asking for them. Senator McCain is embracing the failed policies of the past."
It was the second straight day Obama trained his sights on McCain, but his presence here was a nod to the fierce contest still raging for the right to face McCain in November. West Virginia Democrats will not go to the polls until May 13, but the state is part of a run of contests Clinton hopes to win - including Pennsylvania, Indiana, Kentucky and Puerto Rico -- to narrow Obama's lead in pledged delegates, possibly overtake him in the nomination fight's popular vote total, and make the case to Democratic Party insiders that she is the hot hand with the better chance to win the White House.
West Virginia, with its mix of union miners and rural white voters, is supposed to be Clinton Country. But in his introduction, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.) made the case for Obama, not so much for the university crowd in the audience but the wider state electorate.
"Barack Obama is not canned," Rockefeller said. "He's not glossy. He's grounded, and he's authentic," adding a mention of Obama's "profound faith in a Christian God."
"He's a man whose worked for everything he's achieved, which is something I can't say," added Rockefeller, a scion of one of the nation's richest families.
With a backdrop of uniformed military and aging veterans, Obama spoke less of his plan to end the war than the toll the war has already taken.
"At a time when we're on the brink of recession -- when neighborhoods have For Sale signs outside every home, and working families are struggling to keep up with rising costs -- ordinary Americans are paying a price for this war," he said. "When you're spending over $50 to fill up your car because the price of oil is four times what it was before Iraq, you're paying a price for this war. When Iraq is costing each household about $100 a month, you're paying a price for this war."
His economics were debatable. Much of the rise in energy prices is attributable to rising oil demand abroad, especially in India and China, although production problems in Iraq have exacerbated supply programs. The housing crisis has more to do with years of cheap credit and dubious mortgages offered by banks and the Federal Reserve Board than the half trillion dollars in federal war spending, although the flood of foreign capital financing the war-driven federal debt helped keep interest rates low.
But Obama aides believe bridging the issue gap between a war that remains unpopular and an economy that has eclipsed Iraq as the voters' biggest concern should be powerfully appealing. It also allows Democrats to challenge McCain on one of his biggest policy switches. He opposed President Bush's 2003 tax cuts, saying the nation could not afford to cut taxes in a time of war, especially the tax rates on capital gains and dividends, which primarily benefit the affluent. But McCain now advocates making those tax cuts permanent.
"What no one disputes is that President Bush has done what no other president has ever done, and given tax cuts to the rich in a time of war," Obama said. "John McCain once opposed these tax cuts -- he rightly called them unfair and fiscally irresponsible. But now he has done an about face and wants to make them permanent, just like he wants a permanent occupation in Iraq. No matter what the costs, no matter what the consequences, John McCain seems determined to carry out a third Bush-term."
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